I help take care of the two herb beds at my community garden with a goal make it more sustainable. When I took this on a couple years ago someone kindly offered to help me cut down the herbs when they started flowering since I obviously wasn't doing this. My explanation of why letting the herbs flower was intentional inspired me to write about how herbs can benefit both people and wildlife (click HERE for the link). Herbs can be included in habitat gardening in the context of them being part of edible landscaping and compatible with restoring nature in our yards. They are not an alternative to native plants which are essential for a healthy ecosystem. Flowering herbs are a source of nectar for pollinators, seeds for birds, and attract insects for critters such as anoles, skinks, and tree frogs.
This winter we had a multi-day freeze event that was a disaster for many of the perennial herbs including rosemary, bay leaf, and sage. I took the opportunity to rearrange the herb beds and make larger patches of popular herbs including parsley and basil, and to remove herbs that were taking over including creeping thyme, garlic chives, oregano, and lemon balm to give them their own planters. It was also a chance to create an herb salad flower section to encourage letting herbs flower for people and also benefit wildlife. This vibrant little section in one of the herb beds will hopefully encourage culinary exploration plus a more habitat friendly approach to gardening with herbs. The following herbs are in the new herb flower section of the herb bed.
Arugula is a cool weather herb native to the Mediterranean region. Sow seeds in early spring or fall. A variety of pollinators are attracted to the small off-white arugula flowers. Arugula will self-seed if left to dry out. Hungry finches will even help spread the seeds! Cut off the petals of peppery flower petals to add to salads, as a soup garnish, or in egg dishes.
Basil is native to Asia and loves it when the weather heats up. It starts flowering in late summer and attracts hordes of bees. Basil is a tender annual meaning it will die at the first touch of frost so don’t plant too early. If you can find it, African blue basil is a famously desirable variety for pollinators. It's sterile so can’t be propagated by seed. The tiny flowers taste like mild basil and look lovely as a garnish in a summer salad or in drinks.
Borage is also called bee bush or bee bread because of how attractive its gorgeous true-blue flowers are to bees. There’s also a white variety. The sturdy, mild, flowers with a cucumber taste can be frozen into ice cubes to keep drink colds, candied to put on baked goods, or brewed for a tea.
Calendula flowers attract a variety of insects including butterflies, bees, ladybugs and hoverflies. The petals can be used fresh in egg dishes, compound butter and the dried petals can be used a saffron substitute.
Chive (Allium schoenoprasum ) blossoms are adored by spring pollinating bees. Chives are native to Europe and some Northern parts of North America and form one to three-foot-tall clumps in a sunny herb garden, or along a pathway. They do not self-seed as aggressively as garlic chive. does. The pinkish, purplish flowers can be used to infuse oil or vinegar or to add a bit of onion flavor to any dish such as the turnip dish in the photo.
Nasturtium flower nectar is exceptionally sweet from sucrose and favored by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The flower itself is designed to guide and help bees collect nectar. It’s one of the most well-known edible herb flowers and the slightly spicy flavor lends itself to a variety of dishes. The flower seed pods can even be pickled for nasturtium capers!
* Note and a caution to do your research before adding new plants to the herb garden. I bought a crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria aka ) at a small, independent, non-native, nursery for the herb garden bed because the leaves and flower petals are edible and used in Asian cooking. It’s not an herb I know much about, so I did a little research when writing this. I learned it’s invasive in California, Arizona and parts of other states. Crown daisy is not invasive in Georgia, but because of its invasive nature I’m going to deadhead the flowers. I'm also not going to add it as a habitat herb again since the community garden is in a restoration site and I don't want birds spreading the seeds.
The list of herb flowers to eat are not limited to the handful I planted in the little herb flower salad bed. The following is an alphabetical list of additional and basic popular herbs with flowers that can be eaten. It includes how they might be beneficial for wildlife. All the herb flowers listed can be used in salads and I’ve included other ways to explore using them. The herbs native to cooler climates struggle in Atlanta’s hot, humid summers and are best planted in early spring and fall.
Anise Hyssop - (Agastache foeniculum) is perennial herb native to Northern areas of North America. I wrote about how to identify the two agastache species that are native to Georgia last year HERE. Anise hyssop flowers are popular with native bees, butterflies, hummingbird clearwing moths, and hummingbirds. The dried seedheads are visited by small, seed eating birds. The licorice-flavored, purple flowers that can be added to baked goods and even a summery anise hyssop drink.
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosa) will form highly ornamental white clusters of chive blossoms that are covered in a variety of bees when they bloom in late summer. They are native to Southeast Asia and have invasive qualities of spreading quickly by seed to form large three-foot clumps that are hard to get out once established. I once used them as an edging plant when my yard was a cottage garden, but have since put them in planters with other herbs where they are more easily controlled. Garlic chives are a mainstay of any herb garden to add to savory dishes for a mild garlic flavor.
Cilantro is a cool weather herb native to Europe and Asia and has flat-topped clusters of tiny white cilantro flowers buzzing with itty-bitty pollinators. I’ve watched finches bend cilantro stalks to the ground to get the seeds off it. Cilantro will often self-seed if it’s happy where it is and the ground around it is left alone. Like most herb flowers, the tiny cilantro flowers taste like mild cilantro. Add them as garnish in any dish you add cilantro to. Cilantro seeds are coriander which can be used as a spice in a variety of dishes.
Dill is another cool weather herb best planted in the fall or early spring. It is a host plant to the black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, the lacy little flowers are visiting by a host of tiny pollinators, and the seeds are eaten by finches. The flowers can be pickled. with other vegetables like quick-pickled onions, and the seeds can be eaten in a variety of savory dishes.
Bronze fennel is one all-star habitat plant! With its romantic feathery fronds, bronze fennel makes a fabulous herb that gently self-seeds throughout my rewilded yard because it’s a host plant for black swallow butterflies, when it flowers it's covered in tiny flying creatures, the seedheads offer food for finches and other seed-eating birds, and the dried hollow stalks offer a habitat for stem-nesting native bees. Bronze fennel is perennial so it will come back every year once planted. The edible flowers, tastes like licorice. A friend from Brazil shared a tea made from fennel she picked in my yard. If the birds leave any seeds, they’re a versatile spice to use when cooking.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a bee magnet! The ancient Greeks planted it near honeybee hives and the botanical name Melissa comes from the Greek work which means honeybee. Years ago, it quickly covered my cottage vegetable garden, and I learned this herb in the mint family is best grown in a planter. The tiny, lemony mint flowers can be candied, sprinkled in drinks, or mixed into whipped cream for desserts.
Mint – When you grow your favorite cooking mint just make sure to let it flower and the pollinators will thank you! Unless you are planting mountain mint, which is native, plant all non-native mints in planters, not in your yard where they will travel far and wide and outcompete less aggressive native plants. In Georgia Peppermint in particular is considered a category 3 invasive exotic plant that is a minor problem in natural areas. Mint flowers can be frozen in ice cubes to add a minty touch to summer drinks or sprinkled on any dish where you just want a hint of mint.
Oregano is in the mint family, and I’ve had to remove the large, rambling clumps of it from around my yard from when it was a cottage garden. To contain it I now have oregano growing in planters. The reason I originally had so much oregano is because bees of all sizes seriously love flowering oregano which is great because it has a longer flowering time than most plants. Add oregano to dishes you might want a more subtle oregano flavor.
Parsley – This true biennial will flower the second year it grows then dies back. Leave parsley in the ground to complete this life cycle and you’ll have self-seeding fresh young parsley as well as flowering parsley for pollinators. Parsley flowers are visited by small pollinators, are a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies, and the seeds are enjoyed by finches who bend the stem to eat them. The flowers have a bitter edges and do not have as much of a parsley flavor and are more licorice-like. They would make a good addition to a strong, savory dish.
Rosemary – If you’re lucky and plant it in direct sun, rosemary will flower in early spring for the bees who are emerging to forage for nectar. Rosemary will form a large bush and take up valuable garden real estate in a small yard, so keep it cut back unless you have plenty of room to spare. We all learned this winter that evergreen rosemary will not make it when there are prolongued temperatures below freezing. Rosemary flowers are more mild than rosemary sprigs and can be candied for baked goods or infused in oil.
Sage – The purple flowers are so pretty on sage that it looks like it was grown as an ornamental landscape plant. It attracts bees and hummingbirds. Sage plants practically melt in our hot, humid summers so even though it’s a perennial, it may need to be replanted if growing in full sun. Growing sage in partial shade helps. Sage flowers can be crystalized, jellied, infused in vinegars and oils, or made into a sugar syrup.
Thyme – It’s amazing how even the tiny flowers on thyme seem to have plenty of pollinator fans. Use thyme flowers in vegetable, egg, or meat dishes for a subtle and fresh thyme flavor.
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